Hot Dang, The Dollars In The Dog

Eating a Chicago-style hot dog isn’t a fleeting experience.

The telltale smoky-spicy scent of the meat—and the aromas of the accompanying chopped onion, neon green relish, pickle, tomato, whole sport peppers, mustard, and celery salt—emanate from your fingers for hours.

Even more enduring, a winning wiener tucked inside a poppy-seed bun can trigger memories for years—it’s the madeleine of the Midwest.

Vienna Beef, a Chicago-based maker of hot dogs that manufactured 250 million franks last year, has set up a school inside its factory to educate would-be entrepreneurs about how to earn a living selling its dogs.

This has meant new jobs for the people who enter the hot-dog business and the employees they hire. Since attendees come from across the country, it’s also a way for Vienna to extend its brand into new markets. And because most of the graduates go on to sell Vienna products, the company also receives a bump in sales.

Since Hot Dog University began—Mark Reitman founded the institution in 2006 and partnered with Vienna in 2009—it has produced nearly 800 graduates, 126 last year alone.

The two-day training course costs $699, but participants can elect to receive a rebate—in food supplies and marketing materials—from Vienna if they open businesses that stock its goods. This month, Vienna will also begin offering an abbreviated course in Phoenix.

When I reach Reitman by phone, the Chicago-native’s accent is as thick as Grandma’s gravy. “Yer talkin’ to da right guy. This is Mark. Hot dog professor. I run da program,” Reitman says.

Reitman, 65, sold his first dog at his dad’s drugstore when he was 8. He worked at Henry’s Drive-In during high school. After college, Reitman became a science teacher in Illinois and then a school counselor in Wisconsin. During the summers, he did duty at local eateries.

Around the turn of the century, Reitman decided to “follow every Chicago boy’s dream” and open his own hot dog stand. His wife feared she’d never see him again, but eventually she agreed to let him buy a cart to take out on weekends. For several years, the couple worked side-by-side serving hot dogs—every Chicago girl’s dream.

“On a good day, we made $300 in four hours,” Reitman says. “I was doing better with hot dogs than as a school counselor with a master’s degree.”

The economics of vending hot dogs are as follows: A cart can be purchased for as little as $2,000, and the food supplies can be ordered fairly cheaply, too. Reitman says back when he started he paid about a buck for each dog, bun, and condiments that he sold for $3.

After Reitman retired, he began cooking up ideas for combining his life’s passions: education and encased meats. He figured he knew just about every trick of the hot dog trade, and maybe that was something he could teach, passing on to others a tasty way to make a living while being their own boss. What bubbled to the top was Hot Dog U.

In the early years, Reitman didn’t attract a lot of students. That changed after he landed on television a couple of times. Soon, executives at Vienna, Reitman’s long-time supplier, also took notice.

Tim O’Brien, Vienna’s president, says that as a wholesaler, his company has always received requests for information on how to enter the retail side of dealing dogs. Those queries became more frequent after the economic downturn hit in 2008, he says.

It may not be a coincidence that hot dogs’ popularity in America took off during the Depression. Then and now, they’re an affordable food for retailers and the public.

“We loved that people wanted to sell our hot dogs,” O’Brien says, “But we make food products. We didn’t necessarily know how to show people the way to make a business out of them. We liked what Mark was doing and decided on a merger.”

Vienna set up a classroom for Reitman. He rolled in his cart so students could have a hands-on experience. He also let them get behind the counter at the factory’s café. He brought them on tours so they could see how Vienna’s hot dogs are made. He gave them samples of the food.

Just as important, Reitman also teaches students business skills, such as how to set up a limited liability company, obtain licenses and permits, and receive approval from the health department. He instructs them on staking out good locations for hot-dog carts or stands. He gives pointers on developing menus and managing costs. There are other tricks, too, such as don’t let the water boil or the dogs’ skins will crack, and be sure to grill onions to entice passers-by.

When students finish the course, Reitman hands them over to Vienna’s reps, who talk to them about ordering food, marketing supplies, and equipment from the company.

Janet Riley, the president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council—her business cards say “Queen of Wien”—explains that Vienna’s nose-to-tail approach to purveying everything a vendor needs to sell Chicago-style hot dogs may make it an attractive option for grads. In some places, for example, it’s difficult to find the requisite relish or sport peppers, which are pickled chilies resembling little green slugs. Riley says her organization once tried to shoot a promo, and her staff spent hours scouring Washington, D.C., for a poppy seed bun. In the end, they were forced to stick the seeds onto a standard bun with glue.

For some alumni, Hot Dog U. has been a valuable education.

Jeff Paige, 43, was a floor trader at the Chicago Stock Exchange until a few years ago. He had also worked in TV production in Los Angeles. He recalls that many times he’d get together with his buddies from Chicago and “talk about how there’s no good hot dogs in L.A.” After 20 years of “bitching and moaning,” he and a friend decided to change that. They took Reitman’s course, and then an executive at CBS offered to let him roll a hot-dog cart onto the studio lot.

“I wanted this to be a sort of test market, to see if people in Los Angeles would like Vienna Beef,” he says. “Would people here appreciate a steamed poppy-seed bun, or was it really just a Chicago thing that I grew up with.”

Paige’s business model required him to sell to 3 to 5 percent of the lot’s employees. He says he’s far surpassed that since he began in November. Now he’s confident that a full-fledged restaurant serving Chicago-style hot dogs can be a hit in Los Angeles.

Edward Giles, 58, was a successful bail bondsman in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for decades. Then a mid-life crisis hit, he says. This led him back to Chicago, where he grew up, and into Reitman’s classroom. “I didn’t go for the pretty girl and the new car and lose my family,” Giles says. “But I’ve wanted to open a hot dog stand for 20 years.”

Last fall, Reitman flew down to help Giles set up A Taste of Chicago in Tuscaloosa. The restaurant serves hot dogs, Polish sausages, Italian beef, and other Chi-town favorites—all supplied by Vienna Beef. So far, Giles says his gross sales each month have equaled his initial investment of about $30,000. He’s hired a staff of 10 people.

So how does this compare to his other job?

“Well, understand something, a bail bonds business is more lucrative,” says Giles, “But hot dogs don’t run from you.”

Photo: Thinkstock